Capitalization of Bird Common Names…

and the long and bloody path to getting it “right”.

I try hard to write coherently and correctly but it doesn’t come easily for me and I regularly make mistakes. After all I taught biology, not English, and I’m really just a semi grown-up farm boy from Montana. But when your writing is put out there for the world to see you want to compose it as well as possible. At least I do. Thankfully I have a couple of friends who occasionally message me privately immediately after I’ve published a blog post and point out any glaring grammatical or usage errors so I can correct them before they’ve been seen by most of my readers (thank you Muffy and Sue!).

I’m not anal about it but I do like to get it right.

One of the issues I struggled with at the beginning of my blogging career was proper capitalization of bird common names. The general rule by convention and in many style guides for generations has been that common names of mammals, birds, insects, fish and other life forms are not capitalized. It’s grizzly bear, not Grizzly Bear. But with birds I’d often see it both ways so initially I was confused. Most media outlets don’t capitalize common names of birds and many generally trusted online resources such as Daily Writing Tips say they shouldn’t be capitalized:

  • ” animal names are not capitalized (“I spotted a red-tailed hawk,” not “I spotted a Red-Tailed Hawk”), except when an element of the name is a proper noun, as in “Steller’s jay” and “Siberian tiger.”

This war between advocates of title case (capitalization) and sentence case (non-capitalization) of bird common names is nonsense if you ask me, for reasons I’ll explain below. But I also know that few technical writing errors drive editors and others to distraction like superfluous capitalization does – to the point that they’ve given the practice its own name, “capitalitis”. They’ve even assigned a causative agent to the condition and given it a scientific name, Uppercasis ludicrosii. Gotta admit, I like their humor even if I don’t agree with them when it comes to common names of specific animal and plant species, birds especially.

 

 

I’m generally familiar with the “rules” about the differences between proper capitalization of common and proper nouns but writing “I spotted a yellow warbler” just doesn’t cut it. Many species of warblers are yellow so what species was the bird – a Prothonotary Warbler? a Wilson’s Warbler? a Canada Warbler? Or one of the many other warbler species that are mostly yellow? All that original statement tells the reader is that the warbler was yellow. But writing “I spotted a Yellow Warbler” specifies the exact species. “She saw a white-throated sparrow” doesn’t say squat because there are several sparrows with white throats but “She saw a White-throated Sparrow” lets readers know the precise species with no confusion or equivocation.

After many years of almost bloody fighting over that distinction most respected birding resources have taken the same path and are now capitalizing common names of birds (though the same thing hasn’t happened, at least not yet, with many other organisms such as mammals and plants). A few cases in point:

  • Every one of my bird field guides, including Sibley, National Geographic, Audubon, and the American Museum of Natural History uses title case for bird common names.
  • In 2014 Audubon magazine, after what has been described as a “blood bath” involving contentious editors, vice-presidents and ornithologists, adopted title case for their publications and websites.
  • As far as I know all other bird oriented publications and organizations use title case for birds including Auk, The American Ornithological Society and others.

However at about the same time that Audubon decreed for title case Wikipedia chose the low road and went for sentence case for birds so that only confuses the matter.

 

But here at Feathered Photography it’s title case for birds – always has been and always will be.

 

If vehicles like Plymouth Roadrunners, Buick Skylarks and Jeep Golden Eagles deserve the royal treatment of title case and even Donald Trump is capitalized I’ll be damned if I’ll write the name of this magnificent bird as golden eagle.

On my watch it will always be Golden Eagle.

Ron

 

 

64 comments to Capitalization of Bird Common Names…

  • I’m glad to read this because I use capitalization in the same way, and also appreciate the aesthetics/balance of it, as it shows on the page. 🙂

  • Tony Nicholls

    For the reasons that you have so eloquently stated Ron, I have been, do now and always will use CAPITALISATION to name our magnificent feathered jewels. It is how I was taught so many years ago by my English teacher. Who may I add, emphasized the fact with a few swift and painful strokes of his trusty rattan attitude adjustment implement. Just one of the joys of being educated in the U.K.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I NEVER, NEVER, EVER CAPIALIZE trump!!!!!!!

  • Gary W Wilson

    HI Ron,
    I totally agree with your thoughts and the norm that has been adopted. Same goes in botany, and in all cases where there is a Recommended English List published.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Alice Beckcom

    What great conversations you have “stirred up” about C/capitalization and H/hyphenation. I learn so much by reading the comments of your readers as well as your replies. I’m even amused many times!

    BTW, I love your photos of the Yellow Warbler and the Golden Eagle. Thanks, Ron

  • Jonathon Sleger

    As a retired English teacher (with an English Major), I totally agree.

  • Betty Sturdevant

    Ron, this is great post. You have collected many bright and entertaining followers and it has been a lot of fun to read all the comments. I wish I could claim even half of their expertise in any of the subjects.

  • Buff Corsi

    My problem is that I often have to include a bird name and a mammal name in the same sentence. It looks odd to capitalize the bird but not the mammal. So my solution is to lower case both when in the same sentence and capitalize the bird’s name if in a sentence only about the bird. Right or wrong, I don’t know.

  • sallie reynolds

    Ron, I’m with you all the way! I’ve been a writer and editor for more than 30 years. The secret in dealing with contentious editors is to be consistent and then stick with your decision! You’re the boss here.

  • Susan aka Blue

    Whew! A great post with an analytical, common sense point of view! These are things all of us have wondered about, I am certain, so thank you Mr. Dudley.

  • Shirley

    A little late responding, I have to admit that English & Biology were my best subjects Chem & Math sucked. I like & will continue to use capitalization of birds & animals but I don’t capitalize after the hyphen just like in the dozen bird books we have. If that is wrong, then all these books better be recalled & reprinted with lower case for bird names & yes, recall donald trump too!!!!

  • I was an English major, have my graduate degree in English, have taught many years of writing courses, and am a published poet. As a “word guy,” I am all in with using title case for birds and animals, yes, even for the lowly House Sparrow and House Mouse. Soldier on, Ron. And see my website: http://www.blueheronpoetry.com My poetry collections are not about birds, but my wife noticed years ago that birds fly into my poems very often. I love Great Blue Herons!

  • Dan Gleason

    Thanks. I agree 100%. Each month I write a column about birds for our local newspaper. I always capitalize bird names and they always convert them to lower case. I’ve given them your arguments, “blue jay” or “yellow warbler” but they insist I’m wrong and. request I change to lower case. I’ve been writing for them for over 10 years now. I’m a private contractor for them, not an employee so they can’t force me to change and I will continue capitalizing bird names and they will continue changing them before publicationn. I wonder what they would if this was the focus of an article?

    • That must be very frustrating for you, Dan. Ha, if you made the issue the focus of an article and they still made the changes readers would have great difficulty figuring out your point! Maybe your newspaper would make an exception for that one. They could always put a disclaimer at the bottom of the article…

    • Laura Culley

      LOL Dan! Look on the bright side. You’re giving an editor something to do and keeping them off the streets 😉

  • Zaphir Shamma

    i COULDN’T AGREE MORE WITH YOU rON. tHESE TYPES OF DISCUSSIONS ARE SILLY AND FOLKS JUST END UP GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES. gOLDEN eAGLE…THAT’S JUST SILLY i SAY. yOU STICK TO YOUR GUNS AND KEEP ON POSTING THOSE GREAT PHOTOS WITH ACCOMPANYING STORIES!

  • Dick Ashford

    What would EE CUMMINGS say?

    • Good question, Dick – though even he was inconsistent. This from Wiki:

      “Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, though he most often signed his name with capitals”.

  • Marty K

    i hAVe No IdEa WHAt yOU’rE tAlKiNg aBOut! 😉

    I’m happy to read your blog — capitalization be damned!

  • HA ! and here I thought that the “Canada geese vs. Canadian Geese” was the only linguistic fiery issue over which “bird people” were willing to go to the mat !

    • Kris, you’d be surprised by how many knock down drag out fights I came across while researching this post. Bird nerds and word nerds at each other’s throats. It’s been described as participants having “ruffled feathers and rooster-like posturing”.

      Here’s a description from one of the participants in the “discussion” at Audubon magazine:

      ” I have to be honest: I approached the whole thing as something of a lark. But I quickly realized that everyone else was dead serious. The passionate lowercasers were agog that anyone could argue against standard English usage. The passionate Capitalizers made appeals grounded in the rectitude of the bird-science authorities. Things got heated. Snide remarks were made.”

    • Marty K

      Wait until you spend some time discussing colors with horse people! 😉

  • Dick Harlow

    Oh my, I guess I’ve been wrong all these years. I’ve always capitalized bird common names. There is a specific way to write scientific names and I always thought the same about animal/plant common names. I’m very sorry, but I’m not changing. Funny though I write Nature Notes locally and have never been asked or told to do anything differently. It is either Red-tail or Red-tailed Hawk. I think by capitalizing the accepted common name gives credibility to that name! I agree with you.

    • I don’t think you’ve been “wrong”, Dick. Many bird groups have capitalized them going back almost 200 years. It’s just that not ALL of them did it until recently so it wasn’t consistent across the board.

      I’ve always capitalized them too but at first I didn’t know which camp to follow.

    • Laura Culley

      Dick, red-tail hawk would also be correct. The rule on that hyphenated thing is if the two (or three or more) words that describe/modify the following noun cannot stand alone in their description, you hyphenate those words. For example, it’s not a red hawk or a tail/tailed hawk. Neither of those can stand alone. So, you connect them with a hyphen. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule, but since it’s not that important unless you’re an editor like me, I’ll shut up now 😉

      • Dick Harlow

        Laura,
        Thanks for the rule and info. My wife is my editor. She has put up with me for almost 60 years, so I’m very lucky! Being a biologist and only passable in English it certainly makes writing easier.

        • Laura Culley

          Just goes to show that it takes a village, Dick! I’m an English major and only passable in biology (but I’m catching up on that because it’s part of knowing about birds/critters). I don’t do math, but if you want words, I’m your girl!! 😉 We all have our strengths and weaknesses and that’s OK! We’re all on this spinning rock together!

          • Dick Harlow

            Yes, I agree for the most part, but you’ve got more faith than me, it seems currently there are some from a different planet then when I was brought up.

  • Laura Culley

    OK, I’m a frustrated English teacher and I’m with you on Golden Eagle. I mean really! Who wouldn’t capitalize that magnificence? LOL! I could go on, but I’d rather concentrate on the beauty of the bird and move on. While I GET Red-Tailed hawk, I usually go with redtail hawk, just because when I worked at [ital.]American Falconry[end ital.] magazine, that was their preference and it stuck. Thankfully, Red-Tailed hawk is hyphenated. Otherwise, I’d have to pick that nit and what a waste of energy that would be! 😉
    I just wish you’d put your punctuation (comma, period) inside the quotation marks as in “their territories.” Another nit would be those quotation marks. Who are you quoting? Nobody? Then get rid of those quotes. LOL!!

    • Thanks, Laura. I’m always confused by where to put those quotes. I’ll work on it…

    • Marty K

      I’m an “over-quoter,” but at least I generally put the punctuation inside the territory. 😉

      • Laura Culley

        Most folks just want to highlight what’s inside the quotes, but unless you’re quoting someone, don’t. LOL! And you can’t use the single quote, either. That’s used to denote a quote within a quote. Bold, italics or all caps works to highlight stuff. Oh the English language is such a trial sometimes.

  • Kelly Dudley

    Oh thank goodness there is a name for the condition we share!

  • I agree with your choice and, though I’ve been inconsistent in my own writing, I now feel confident in making that choice consistently in the future. In fact, I think I will extend that thinking to the common names of mammals, at least, for the same reason. A “black bear” can be any of many bears (and many Black Bears are brown, cinnamon, or even blonde) but a Black Bear is unambiguous. Thanks for taking up this topic.

  • Porcupine

    Your rants about issues like this save me all sorts of time! Now I don’t have to say the same things. You already have. And anyone out there who is not capitalizing Grizzly has never been face to face with one!
    Thanks for a great post.

  • Thank you! I feel the same about the Great Blue Heron. If it’s great, let’s make it count.

  • Judy Gusick

    “English” never was my long suite……….. and now that I don’t have to deal with memo’s/letters for work I’m REALLY lax about it (and spelling) 🙂 Beautiful photo’s by the way! 🙂

  • Sharon Constant

    I agree with your choice. I’ve struggled with the same thing (to a much lesser degree since I do not write daily or for so many members of the public–including experts). I admit that I go both ways but more often than not, I use title case (being an old graphic designer with a lot of advertising copy under my belt). I tend to not capitalize the second word of a hyphenated name (Red-tailed Hawk).

    In Scott Weidensaul’s beautiful book Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds, he mentions in the preface that he considered title case but decided upon lower case for the book because it was less visually disruptive in large blocks of text. This also makes sense to me but I like the logic you have applied to your analysis. The application is more along the lines of my needs given that I will not be writing a book and seldom write more than a paragraph or two about birds. I will endeavor to be consistent with title case.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • As an English teacher, I approve this message for the exact, cogent reasons you stated. Well said, sir.

    • I breathed a sigh of relief at your comment, Suzanne. I have good friends who are or were English teachers (including Sue mentioned in my text) and I’m nervous about invading “their territories”. 🙂

  • Yves E. Gauthier

    In French it is different. We write Buse à queue rousse (red-tailed hawk).

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